22. January 2010 · Comments Off on Words Count

Okay, I’m finally going to discuss my writing in more detail.  Shocker! Supposedly the blog is, at least in part, about my journey as a writer.   Looking back through my posts so far though, I realize I’ve been quite cryptic about my works in progress.  My stomach churns when I think about pressing the “publish” button, but it’s time to practice bravery.

My current projects are two children’s picture books.  I’ve completed one manuscript – a rhyming book that teaches children the group names of animals.  The title (which is bad but I can’t think of anything better yet) is A Troop is a Group of Monkeys.  After careful research, I sent it to four publishers.  So far two have sent back rejection letters (although one was very nice and handwritten!).  Here are a couple of sample verses:

A parliament of owls hoot in the night.

A bouquet of pheasants begins to take flight.”

another verse:

“An ostentation of peacocks parade their bright plumes.

A surfeit of skunks spray their stinky foul fumes.”

The second story is still very much a draft, and features a girl who has “magic” in her body from eating her fruits and vegetables.  Her name is Virginia Belinda Marinda McPhee.  Sample verse (keep in mind still in draft form): *FYI – I am still working on this manuscript, and this sample bears no resemblance to the current draft.  I cringe when I read it now, but I’m keeping it in because it helps me see how far I’ve come in my writing already – note included 4/12/10

“Above all other things, I love the monkey bars.

I watch kids swinging round and round like gymnastics stars.

I tried to swing myself, but found I couldn’t move

I hung straight down and looked at the ground

Without a single groove.

Then I found my inner monkey!

I ate a whole banana, then climbed back up the bars.

I swung so fast and high I think

Next time I’ll swing to Mars.”

Many people think writing books for young children is easy.  Any decent writer should be able to write a book that is 500 words or less in a day, right? In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Writing picture books in verse is not about the “word count” but whether the “words count.”  A Troop is a Group of Monkeys is only 252 words – about 3-4 paragraphs of prose.  So, what’s the problem?

Here is the challenge:  with only 252 words, every word is critical.  Each word in the story must be held up, examined, and polished to a shine.  If, at the end of that process, the word is not brilliant and sparkling, it must be discarded and replaced with another word.  The new word must face the same scrutiny.

Then there is the rhyming bias.  The number one rule for a new children’s book writer is: don’t write a rhyming book.  As one agent put it at the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference I attended (paraphrasing), “if you’re writing a rhyming book you’re competing with the likes of Jane Yolen and Mem Fox, who can rhyme their grocery lists in their sleep and wake up with a masterpiece.” (P.S. Yolen is equally gifted at prose, non-rhyming poetry or any type of writing – she’s a genius!).

The problem with rhyme is that when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong.  There’s nothing more cringe-inducing than reading really bad rhyme.  It’s the equivalent of the early regional auditions for American Idol.  Furthermore, aspiring writers inundate editors and agents with submissions containing bad rhyme.  So even though young kids love rhyming stories, editors hold rhyming manuscript submissions (especially from new authors), to the very highest standard.

Thus my hurdles are higher than most.  You see, I like writing children’s books in rhyme.  Rhyme helps me structure my stories.  In addition to my own children, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are my heroes and my inspiration for writing children’s books.  I know I can’t write like them (yet), but I like to think I’m not horrible.  If I find out I am, I’ll move on.

I stand to find out more next weekend when I attend the national SCBWI conference in New York.  I decided to sign up for a writer’s intensive the day before the conference so I could get direct feedback from a few editors and agents.  I’m so nervous I find myself reworking my verses in my sleep, unfortunately not waking up with masterpieces.

At the very least, I will have learned something along the way.  Case in point: I was at the dog park the other day and eavesdropping on a group of people discussing which dog parks had good fence barriers against prairie dogs, potential carriers of the bubonic plague.  While describing a nearby park, one guy said, “There’s a whole group of them… I can’t remember what a group of prairie dogs is called, but…”

“I know!  I know!” I said, jumping up and down like a first-grader.  “A group of prairie dogs is a coterie.  I know because I’m writing this book…”

Blah, blah, blah.  Eyes glaze over.  I walk away with my tail between my legs.  So if the publishing thing doesn’t work out, at least there’s still Trivial Pursuit!

Categories: Books, Children's Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , , , ,

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